Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dead bodies having sex...oh nooooeeesss!

Some of you may already know about Body Worlds, the exhibition of cadavers that combines science and art to educate people on human anatomy.  These cadavers are preserved in a process known as "plastination."

Body Worlds has come under scrutiny before, the exhibitions being deemed controversial.  While fascinating, there are some exhibits that cannot help but make the viewer uncomfortable.  I remember when I went to see Body Worlds here in Milwaukee last summer with my fiance.  He's a med student, so of course he liked the science aspects, and I loved the artistic aspects.

I saw each preserved and posed cadaver as a sculpture.  But of course one cannot help but remember that each of these objects was once a living person, and this fact was never more obvious than the exhibit featuring a plastinated female body with its pregnant belly exposed, showing the preserved fetus inside.  A kind plaque informed us that the woman died in a car accident.  I couldn't help but think that that woman was too young, and she and her baby were related to someone.  I was caught, because while the sculpture was undoubtedly fascinating, frozen in a lithe pose, fetus curled inside the open uterus, I thought the exhibit was unavoidably insensitive.

But I think that's the point.  Body Worlds exhibits bodies in poses, which effectively bares our humanity as it is tied to our actual naked anatomy.

The new exhibit will have cadavers in various sex positions to serve as a starting point of the life cycle.  This, of course, has incited more controversy.  The purpose is to show the raw function of sex as it pertains to conception, and is not meant to imitate pornography:

"It's not my intention to show certain sexual poses. My goal is really to show the anatomy and the function," Body Worlds creative director Whalley told Reuters in an interview, adding the sex exhibition may open next year.
Body Worlds exhibitions, visited by 27 million people across the world, have been criticized for presenting entire corpses, stripped of skin to reveal the muscles and organs underneath, in lifelike and often theatrical positions.
Von Hagens has already triggered uproar with a new exhibit which shows just two copulating corpses.
German politicians called the current "Cycle of Life" show charting conception to old age "revolting" and "unacceptable" when it showed in Berlin earlier this year because it included copulating cadavers.
There are those critics who find this exhibit to be disgusting because it inextricably links death and sex.  I'm the first to always point out that intention is inconsequential since it doesn't always equal how an audience will receive it, and this situation is no different.  Many critics have stated that this is disrespectful to the dead, but we're not dealing with the dead in a traditional sense.  And let's not forget that these bodies are obtained through willing donations--the exhibits are not the results of grave robbing.  I feel that we should respect the right of an individual's autonomy over their own body, even in death, and am not sure that this violates that.

I'm all about art that pushes boundaries, but I'm interested in what other people think.  I'm not made uncomfortable by sex, and dead body sculptures in sex poses doesn't offend me.  In fact, I sort of wish they'd make exhibits with bodies having sex beyond the parameters of conception since most sex isn't for that purpose.  And there's more than just straight sex.  So what do you all think?  Awesome?  Disrespectful?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Information on body donation can be found here.  And the FAQs page here.



occhiblu said...

I feel like this would require an added layer of consent for me to be ok with it -- it's one thing for a person to say "Please display my body for educational purposes," but it's another to say "Please insert someone else's penis into my dead body for educational purposes."

If people have consented to the latter (and in more than just "it was included as a possibility in the small print" way), then I guess I'm ok with it, though I'm not sure I'd really go out of my way to see it. If they haven't explicitly given informed consent, though, then while I guess it's not technically rape, it still feels rape-like, to me.

FilthyGrandeur said...

that's interesting that you mention consent, and being rape-like. i can see where you're coming from. i guess for me it's just an "i'm dead, am i really going to care?" kinda feeling. i think i'm going to look into the actual donation information and see what sorts of things are outlined in terms of consent.

occhiblu said...

Yeah, I don't know... I don't really believe in an afterlife, but I still think I want to be cremated because I don't want my body to end up buried next to someone I don't like for all eternity, so I may be a bit weird on the subject. :-)

sexgenderbody said...

my two cents...

If this exhibit were made up of the cadavers of two squirrels, or two large-mouth bass, then nobody would care.

In my opinion, the only discernible difference between exhibits of human sexuality and that of any other living creature - is our vanity. Conceit may be a better word. The examination of ourselves as equal to animals is an insult to the core belief that we are better than them.

The truth is that we are marginally different.

When exposed to sinew, bone and nerve, our differences become negligible to the point of non-existence. The only real difference, the only real issue - is the story / delusion / fantasy we tell ourselves about how different we are. We recoil in outrage, fear, revulsion, shock and protestations for the protection of 'sacredness'.

Truth endures the test of examination. If we really possess some super duper specialness, then looking at out naked, fornicating bodies will not cause it to evaporate or wither. What does fade under inspection and rational gaze is delusion, fantasy, fairy tale, deception, lies, manipulation, deceit and vanity.

Does our real value and worth diminish if we are not better than animals?

I for one, am not afraid of being an animal.


Maud said...

I don't have a problem with this. Sex is a biological function, and the point of this exhibit is supposed to be to allow us to see how our bodies are connected and function anatomically, as I understand it. This is just one more normal, physical human activity. I can see how sensitivities on this point might differ, but I don't believe a corpse can be raped. To me the essence of rape is the violation of a person's living self. Obviously making use of someone's dead body for any purpose without their consent is wrong. It's disrespectful both to the dead person and to any surviving loved ones they may have, as well as being simply deeply creepy. But given that these people willingly turned their bodies over for use after they were done with them, I don't see this as a violation, given the context and the way it's treated.

I suspect that for a lot of people it is just that the connection of sex and death totally grosses them out. After all, sex is supposed to be all youthful and dewy. People will make an elaborate fuss about being exposed to any knowledge of elderly people being sexually active, especially women. Any woman past menopause is not considered fit for or deserving of sex by many, so connecting cadavers to sex will really give those people the vapors. Older people aren't even supposed to be naked, much less sexual. And I do note that, in the picture shown, the female cadaver seems to have good-sized, full breasts, despite the fact that both cadavers seem otherwise to be only muscle, bone and connecting tissue. I guess we can't let a woman without decent boobs have sex even if she's dead.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see the medical donation form that includes "Feel free to use my body to depict sex acts."
I kind of think a corpse is a thing and don't assign any value to a dead body, but I definately disagree that the people who these corpses used to be consented to this use of their shells.
And seriously, sex and death should not be mixed.

FilthyGrandeur said...

you make some awesome points. i think that most people have hang ups about this exhibit because it exposes us completely--it removes all sense of personhood and instead shows that yeah, we are just flesh and bone, like any other biological creature.

i think if consent is given prior to the person's death, then it doesn't really matter how the body is used, so yeah, i totally agree with you. i don't really see this as a violation. and it isn't as if the bodies are recognizable--the skin is removed and the owners of said bodies are anonymous.

yeah, sex and death should not mix, however i don't see these bodies posed in sex positions as sex, since "sex" implies an act, and well...they're essentially unmoving sculptures. and you can disagree that people actually consented to this, but uh...they did. that's what a donation is...

occhiblu said...

I think it's a mistake to assume that any disagreement with the practice is due to discomfort with sex as an anatomical function. To me, the issue is not with viewers' interpretations or issues with seeing bodies in this way, but that I feel it's disrespectful to the bodies being used for this purpose.

*You* may see corpses as just "things," but that doesn't mean their donors do/did. I read through the consent forms, and nowhere was public display of sexual intercourse mentioned as a possibility. Using already-donated corpses for this project seems to me like changing the rules in the middle of the game; even if not 100% of everyone agrees with me, I'd assume that at least a few people would, and therefore it should have been included in the informed consent forms that these donors signed, in case they were of my thinking (which means, of course, that if they weren't, that's fine too).

If they wanted to mount (no pun intended) the show with newly donated corpses whose donors *had* explicitly agreed to be used in this way, then I have no problem with that.

Really, I used to work in philanthropy. Donating something does not, in most cases, mean that the organization can do anything it wants with your money, name, or image. I currently work as a therapist, and clients who sign an informed consent form agree to the things listed in the form; they don't give me a blanket ok for doing anything I want with them. The fact that many of my clients kind of handwave away their consent ("Yeah, do whatever, it's fine") does not mean that I can just arbitrarily change the terms at any time.

Putting some conditions on donations is pretty standard. Putting limits on consent is pretty standard. The medical field generally understands that legal and ethical guidelines need to be followed for informed consent, and the medical field generally sees sexual activity as separate from medical activity.

I think it's reasonable to assume that at least some donors would also make that distinction, and so I think it's reasonable to require their explicit consent before using their donations in this way. I feel this way not because I hate sex and bodies, but because I respect sex and bodies.

FilthyGrandeur said...


i can see your point, but i think this is still different. i get what you're saying about name and image when it comes to donation, but since names of donors are omitted, and image is sort of negligible since skin is removed, does it still matter? and i'm still not sure this even counts as "sexual activity" since the bodies are inanimate, thus incapable of acting.

stufflikemikans said...

Wow...this is pretty disturbing to me. That's only because I have this irrational phobia of the inner workings of the human body. Seeing all those muscles, organs, etc. would really freak me out. I can't explain why. Seeing it in sex positions would be worse because then every time I have sex, I would see those sculptures in my head. Ahh!!

Now, if I didn't have this weird phobia, then I think the content would be really interesting. I can't really see much of a problem with it. It helps to educate people, and all of the bodies were donated.

Something I also thought about with this: the bodies being paired up in these positions probably never knew each other when they were alive. I mean, I guess it doesn't really matter since the people donated their bodies and there's not really much of them left. Still, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable when I think about them being total strangers.

FilthyGrandeur said...

the consent forms specifically address the possibility of the donated body being used publicly, and while the person can suggest possible poses, the decision is ultimately up to the institute.

i figure if you're the type of person who wants to donate your body for scientific purposes, which may or may not include public artistic display, you're probably not the type of person who's going to care how that body (which no longer looks like you) will be displayed...just saying.

stufflikemikans said...

No, you're right. That is true. I'm just over thinking it. But you know what? That's just a sign that it's good art. If it was bad art, then it wouldn't cause me to react at all.

FilthyGrandeur said...

lol. that's alright. i admit that when i went to see Body Worlds, I was a little grossed out--i also have a hard time looking at the inner workings of our bodies, but i guess that artistic side of me still goes "neat!" it helps that they don't have recognizable features, and without the skin it's easier to perceive them as objects. note that i have a really hard time going to open-casket funerals.

Patrick said...

Yeah, I think you're right on this one. I'll second Arvan's thoughts.

These sculptures are meant to be both educational and beautiful. And sexuality is indeed a significant part of our lives and our identities. These sculptures (for lack of a better term) are not exploitative, and I'm all for them. This is not "101 hot positions... with corpses!" If it were, that'd be tacky and unfortunate.

As you say, a donation is a donation. And, at least from my perspective, a body is a body. I don't care what happens to my body when I die, and if someone can learn something from it, then all the better. Those who have donated to Body Worlds surely have been of the same perspective.

Anonymous said...

The individuals donated their bodies to science not art. Simply combining the two does not justify the action. I don't believe they knew their bodies would be used in this manner. I know this has me reconsidering my own body being donated to science. I would not want it display in such a way after my death. It's not about whether you can tell who the corpse is or was. It is about the corpse itself being used in such a way that is most likely not how the person envisioned their body being used.